The queen of country pubs talks seafood, staffing and how sometimes you just need a hearty pie
We've reported many times on the difficulties faced by hospitality businesses during the pandemic. And while we've had many positive stories of restaurants adapting and new micro business sprouting up, one less-than-happy tale really got us in the feels.
Seafood Pubs was forced to close after COVID-19 measures and previous investment in the pubs meant that they could not raise any more funding. But now the group's founder Joycelyn Neve has a team working hard behind the scenes to ensure the "the cream" of its pubs are ready to reopen on 17 May after they were acquired by the Oakman Group.
It was an incredible feeling being able to pick up the phone saying 'it's happening'
Joycelyn is the daughter of Chris Neve, who has been supplying restaurants all over the country with fresh fish and seafood for over four decades from his Fleetwood base, so it's no surprise that the group was well known for its seafood dishes alongside pub classics.
Now, Joycelyn has joined The Oakman Group as MD of its new "northern" division and we caught up with her for a natter about the stress of going into administration, preparing to reopen as restrictions ease and the dishes she missed most during lockdown.
Like a lot of people, you’ve had a really stressful time. Can you catch us up on the last year?
Joycelyn Neve: "It's been a really trying time for most people. We went into lockdown thinking that this would last for a couple of weeks, maybe up to a month. So, we put the pubs 'to bed' as we called it, and spent the weekend cleaning up after the news on the Friday, expecting that the world would go back to normal very soon and obviously that's not what happened.
"We were previously backed by private equity, so the debt structure that was in the business meant that we couldn't qualify for a coronavirus business interruption loan. A lot of hospitality businesses didn't.
"We ran aground in cash terms and went into administration in June, which was incredibly stressful. It's hurtful for everyone involved because it was so much more than ever being a job, not just for me but for all of the teams.
"Since then, I've just stayed focused on the business I've been in for the last 10 years and how we can rescue what we can; and so on 8 March, after a long slog, we exchanged on six sites and became part of the Oakman Group."
Did you manage to retain your staff?
JN: "The administration happened in June, so people weren't in a position to sit around and wait for jobs. I’m absolutely over the moon with how many of the crew are coming back. A few people have never lost the faith and have been able to do some part-time jobs and projects that they've always wanted to do, and never been able to before.
"While the deal was actually going through until it was done and dusted and properly confirmed, it wouldn't have been right for me to get people's hopes up in case something had gone wrong. So once I could actually speak to people, that was an incredible feeling being able to pick up the phone saying 'it's happening'. We've a really good amount of crew coming back.
"One of the things about our industry is that you get so good at so many different things. So we’ve a mix of old and new staff coming in, but we’ll have 150 jobs back live again which is obviously so important at a time like now, with many people out of work.
"We've purposefully not gone for the April openings because we would have been so time-pressured and we want to get it right. Some people have been on furlough for a long time so we need to make sure that the team is trained properly and is comfortable and looking forward to it rather than it being a highly pressured, stressful turnaround."
The pubs we are talking about are old favourites for a lot of people. When they come back will they find them just the same or have you taken the opportunity to change things up a bit?
JN: "It’s a bit of both. We're making sure that we are protecting everything that's true to the pubs. What's most important to people is the menus, the personalities. We've always recruited and wanted people that are really knowledgeable and give great service on a personal level which means treating everyone as individuals, not just a robotic one-size-fits-all kind of service. So that's always protected and that's our heart and soul. As you say we've got this opportunity now in the period before we start trading. Even though restrictions are supposed to be lifted by June and we can trade indoors from May, we're quite conscious of the fact that people might not feel confident with that yet so we're really making the most of our outside spaces. We're extending outside, making sure there are more covered areas and there's more heating in them. So, we can make sure that they can be the best they can be.
"We’re opening in two-week stages to make sure everything is absolutely perfect and the team has arms wrapped around them to make sure they've got all the support they need. We're opening the first pubs on 17 May, and that's for the bedrooms as well. There is still so much doubt about foreign travel, so if you want to be able to get away, even just an hour away, if you're out in the countryside it can feel like you're on a little holiday here."
For readers who are travelling out to one of your pubs for the first time - what can they expect?
JN: "Individually, it would depend on where they went. I think that's what's so special about what we do. Especially for people that are city-based, in less than an hour, they can be in rolling countryside, incredible views and beautiful beer gardens. The investment we're making to the outside will really make that experience so much more special. So, we've got an outside bar going in at The Forest in Fence. Huge stretch tents with festoon lighting in there. So that will be super cool. I'm very excited about that one. We are dog-friendly so if it's a day out or a weekend away, you can bring the family dog with you.
"But the main thing for us is always going to be incredible plates of food, maybe you’ve been on a long walk and you want a hearty pie - it's always local produce and homemade. What we do that's really special and different is our seafood specials which change daily."
The whole basis of the business is seafood isn’t it – can you tell us a bit more about that?
JN: "We're using all the same suppliers again actually. And it's been really nice, especially after what happened, that everyone supported us. The suppliers still want to work with us and it’s great to have all that local produce back on the menu. My day starts with talking about the price of fish with my dad. Bringing that family-work connection back to life with my dad ringing me in the morning about what's on the market and what's great - I'm really looking forward to getting back into that."
What have you been missing over lockdown? Where will you be heading to once restrictions are lifted?
JN: "I love being around the pubs because it's full of people and all the great food. So all through lockdown, I just became like a Seafood Pub development kitchen - cooking the signature dishes, because I missed them so much, thinking up new ones to try out. I'm not a good baker though so I miss pies and things like that. One of the first things I’ll order from the menu will be a Goosnargh chicken pie, which is one of our best-sellers. I tried to make it home but I just can’t do it like the chefs can. One of the dishes that the guys would do that I really love is skate wing with a Szechuan-spiced crust on it or wok-fried crab claws. I love Asian-inspired dishes.
"My main hobby is food and drink and just being able to go out and eat and drink in a social setting, whether it's socially distanced or not, it's such an exciting prospect. So our own pubs of course. The Parkers Arms isn’t far from where I live so a visit to Stosie and the crew is due. We are spoiled around here for great pubs, there's plenty of good places to escape to."
The Seafood Pubs
The six pubs that have joined the Oakman Group are
- Fleece Inn, Addingham, West Yorkshire (opens 17 May)
- Forest Inn, Fence, Lancashire (opens 17 May)
- Derby Arms, Longridge, Lancashire (opens 31 May)
- Farmers Arms, Great Eccleston, Lancashire (opens 31 May)
- Fenwick Arms, Claughton, Merseyside (opens 14 June)
- Alma Inn, Colne, Lancashire (opens 14 June)